Survey: Young, diverse generation of evangelicals shows growing ambivalence toward Israel

Among a racially diverse subset of young evangelicals, 42% said they supported neither Israel nor Palestinians regarding conflict in the region. A marked shift from previous years.

Protesters supporting Palestinians walk down Michigan Avenue, as President Joe Biden visits a Ford electric vehicle center nearby,  May 18, 2021, in Dearborn, Michigan. Biden’s efforts to spotlight his big infrastructure plans are suddenly being overshadowed by the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians.  (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

(RNS) — A new survey suggests a younger, more diverse generation of evangelical Christians is undergoing a marked shift regarding their views on politics and Israel. Among the poll’s findings: a seemingly rapid turn away from support for Israel, raising questions about whether the country’s leaders can maintain long-term support within a key religious constituency in the U.S.

According to a poll conducted March 22-April 2 and overseen by the social research firm Barna Group and scholars at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 42% of self-identified evangelical and born-again Christians age 18-29 said they supported neither Israel nor Palestinians regarding conflict in the region.

Among those who picked a side, 24.3% said they supported, leaned toward or very strongly supported Palestinians, whereas 33.6% expressed the same sentiment for Israel.

UNCP professors Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin, who oversaw the survey and teach about religion and political science, respectively, told Religion News Service those numbers differed sharply from a poll they conducted in 2018. In that survey, nearly 69% of young evangelicals supported or leaned toward support for Israel, with only 5.4% saying the same about Palestinians living in the occupied territories. At the time, around 26% of those polled said they supported neither.

Inbari and Bumin were quick to acknowledge the sample size for young evangelicals in the 2018 poll was smaller, as it was a subset of a larger survey looking at evangelicals across multiple age groups. The polls also have different levels of racial diversity: in the 2018 poll of all evangelicals, 65% of respondents were white, 19% percent were Black and 9.6% were Hispanic or Latino. But in the 2021 UNCP poll of young evangelicals, 45.4% were white, 24% were Black, 14.8% were Hispanic or Latino and 15.7% were of another ethnicity.

Even so, researchers noted the views of young evangelicals in the 2018 survey didn’t differ strongly from that of evangelicals generally, suggesting a shift in the intervening years: In 2018, nearly 75% of evangelicals overall supported or leaned toward support for Israel, with only 2.7% saying the same about Palestinians and 22% saying they supported neither.

Another point of comparison: whereas researchers said they generally did not see significant differences between racial subgroups of evangelicals regarding support for Israel in 2018, they found wide rifts in this year’s young evangelicals survey.

Among young white evangelicals in the 2021 poll, nearly 20% leaned toward or expressed various levels of support for Palestinians, almost 37% leaned toward or expressed support for Israel, and 43% said they backed neither. But among young Black evangelicals, 34% leaned toward or expressed support for Palestinians, 26% said the same about Israel, and around 39% supported neither.

Any change in support for Israel among evangelicals could have far-reaching implications. Ron Dermer, who served as Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2013 to 2021, recently suggested “passionate and unequivocal” evangelical support for Israel is equally if not more important than U.S. Jewish support, pronouncing to Israeli journalist Amit Segal: “The backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians.”

RELATED: Debate over Israel-Palestine violence highlights shifting political and religious alliances

Dermer added that “if you look just at numbers, you should be spending a lot more time doing outreach” to evangelical Christians than to Jewish Americans.

Evangelical pastors were among those who spoke at the 2018 ceremony in Jerusalem to commemorate then-President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy there, and Trump himself said in 2020 he made the controversial decision “for the evangelicals.”

Asked to speculate about why young evangelicals are gravitating toward different schools of thought, Inbari and Bumin pointed to ongoing analysis of young evangelical pastors and their views on End Times theology. Support for Israel among conservative Christians is often attached to “pre-millennial” religious beliefs, which mark Jewish presence in Israel as a crucial part of the End Times.

But scholars said recent research has drawn attention to a new crop of younger evangelical pastors who espouse “amillennial” or “post-millennial” theology that believes “Israel’s role in the End Times is no longer consequential for redemption.”

“We are thinking that perhaps young evangelicals we see in our sample in 2021 are gravitating to churches led by these amillennialist and post-millennialist, younger, more diverse preachers,” Inbari said. “So the messages they’re receiving fundamentally contrast with the more pro-Israel message we see in the broader evangelical community.”

In addition, Inbari and Bumin noted a curious trend: Among young evangelicals, the more often they hear about the importance of Israel, the less likely they are to support it.

“Typically we expect that socialization would produce positive effect toward Israel: When you talk to other evangelicals about the importance of supporting Israel, that will create a positive effect and increase one’s support for Israel,” Bumin said. “We find the complete opposite for younger evangelicals: There is this almost teenage angst, where hearing frequently about the importance of Israel actually leads them to support Israel less.”

RELATED: ‘Til Kingdom Come’ examines link between end-times theology and Israel politics

In addition to thoughts on Israel, their findings defied narrow categorizations of evangelicals, which often point to how white evangelicals in particular backed Trump in 2016 and generally supported him throughout his tenure as president.

Among the young evangelicals in the UNCP survey, the largest share (33.7%) said they were Democrats, whereas 24.8% identified as Republicans. They also tended to back the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate: 45.8% said they voted for Biden last year, compared with 25.7% who said they supported Trump. Another 4% voted for a different candidate, and more than 20% didn’t vote at all.

Here again, there were racial differences: young white evangelicals were more likely to vote for Trump (39%) than Hispanic or Latino evangelicals (15%) or Black evangelicals (7%). The same was true of party identification, with around 36% of white evangelicals identifying as Republicans compared to 15% of Hispanic or Latino evangelicals and less than 8% of Black evangelicals.

Yet those numbers may surprise political strategists who often point to Trump’s clout among white evangelicals of all voting ages in 2016, when he won 80-81% of the overall group according to Pew Research.

“The assumption is evangelicals are … all lumped together as hard-core supporters of the GOP, conspiracy theorists, (and) Trumpists,” Bumin said. “What we see, in fact, is immense diversity in their views — from the pastors all the way down to the ordinary parishioners. We see diversity in fundamental beliefs, as well as in policy attitude.”

Inbari put a finer point on it: “The conventional wisdom views evangelicalism as the Republican base, and what you see in the results of this research is that this is not so true about young evangelicals.”

In addition to young evangelicals, several religious groups have seen opinions change on Israel in recent years, with Black pastors in particular becoming especially vocal in their support for the Palestinian cause during the region’s recent flare-up in violence.

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